Monday, May 30, 2011

Greatest of All Time

Greatest of All Time: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali encapsulates the boxing legend’s legacy
They say man is born to fight. We come into this world with clenched fists much like a boxer. Boxing, they say, is a noble art. But only a few make it to the ring, fewer become champions and only one can be crowned the heavyweight champion of the world. Muhammad Ali was one of them.
The man with the Golden Gloves was no Fancy Dan and it was Ali who introduced the famed ‘Ali Shuffle’ that saw the crowd roaring every time he entered the ring and moved his feet back and forth in a dazzling blur.
Ali was simply the best. He strode in with giant steps into the world of boxing, floor-ed his opponents and conquered the hearts of millions across the globe.
Boxing fans will always remember Ali upper-cutting Ingermar Johannson. The ‘frozen’ sweat, the mouthpiece in the air, the hair flying… It epitomised the power of boxing that reached its peak in the Sixties and has never been the same since.
They say Ali had the gifts but only in parts. Others were scientifically better. Floyd Patterson was neater and cleaner and ‘floated’ more convincingly. His only flaw was he had a glass chin. Sugar Ray had the best short jab. Manny of the Philippines, who’s making waves now, is a lighter version of the old Cassius Clay. Tyson had staying power. Joe Louis was a legend. And even Ali could not touch the Brown Bomber’s status — the well-known Trinidadian had the hardest punch.
But of all these boxers then and now, one name rolls off the tongue the most. Muhammad Ali. The man who returned after three years in exile and reached heights that no man before, or after, ever has and possibly never will.
I wonder what Ali would have been if he had not become the GOAT — the Greatest of All Times. A vehement social activist or a chart-busting stand-up comic, the kind whose wit and humour will go on, even after he is long gone?
That was the magic of Muhammad Ali, the greatest sports person who ever walked this earth, the little boy who believed he was God, because he knew that to believe anything less than that would not get him to his ultimate goal.
The gentle giant turned 69 this year. I remember seeing him in Dubai, the fire in his eyes had dimmed, the dark-honey-toned skin was a wee bit wrinkled and the floating butterfly had lost his legendary sting, but not the art of the gab. He could still floor you with his repartee.
Much has been written about the man who was the king of the ring and, for Ali fans all over the world, there is good news in the form of an affordable edition of GOAT, Greatest of All Time: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali the Taschen limited edition mega-book about the icon, that was first launched with price tags of between $15,000 and $4,500.
When it first hit the streets, boxing enthusiasts and fans of the gentle giant had perhaps eaten their heart out because only the rich and well-heeled could afford to lay their hands on the mother of all coffee-table books. I mean, what else would you term a book that took four years to make, weighs 34 kgs and is 50 cm x 50 cm (20” x 20”) in size, 30 brilliant interviews with a whopping 800 pages of sheer poetry in pictures?
GOAT is possibly the closest any publisher has got to the pugilist who is not just the icon of an era when sports was clean, honest and all about hard work but who was also the voice of the black community and of all those who did not believe in America’s role in the Vietnam war. He was willing to go to prison but not ready to get drafted for a war that he did not believe in. How many modern-day sports people do you know who would trade their trend-setting lifestyle for a few years in prison garbs?
“By Ali standing up as he did, that gave many of us much more courage. That gave us much more hope than we’d ever had before,” says BB King of the much-venerated and idolised boxer whose life is a symphony of paradoxes. He was both cruel and kind, a fighter who turned peacemaker as he was sent on missions to Muslims countries by US Presidents.
Gilbert Rogin, writing on Ali, said: “What strange times we live in. What a strange, uncommon man is Clay (his former name). Who can fathom him? We can only watch in wonder as he performs and ponder whether, despite his truly affecting ways, he doesn’t scorn us and the world he is champion of.”
GOAT is a book that must be read — and not just by die-hard boxing fans. It’s no exaggeration to say it is, as Spiegel magazine describes it, “the most megalomaniacal book in the history of civilisation, the biggest, heaviest, most radiant thing ever printed.”
Putting this book together was a challenge and journey of love by one man who dearly loved Muhammad Ali since his early childhood. The man: Benedikt Taschen. It took him four years to complete his mission and it involved sifting through millions of pictures of Ali in archives all over the world. He and his team “visited and talked to dozens of photographers, journalists, writers, ex-opponents, managers lawyer — everybody we could think of. Some 20 people were involved with me on the journey, plus additional contributors who wrote essays on various Ali-related issues.”
When the massive tome was launched, what pulled the buyers to the book, like bees to honey, was the fact that you could not get closer to the story of the handsome young man’s now legendary rise to the top of the boxing world and his metamorphosis to a living legend still remembered and revered.
Ali was closely involved in the project which is why the book is alive and bursting with anecdotes, insights and comments from him and those closest to him such as managers, friends, family members including children. For those with money it was an irresistible deal — the opportunity to lose themselves in 3,000 photographs, some of them previously unpublished, and his writings, drawings, and reproductions of fight posters and classic memorabilia that gave them an up-close look at his life like never before.
In addition, the publishers gave a contemporary hook to buyers by roping in artist Jeff Koons to work with them. The book was eventually launched in two versions: the (Champ’s Edition), limited to the first 1,000 copies and featuring a specially-commissioned congenial multiple by Jeff Koons as well as four silver gelatin prints by Howard L. Bingham, an Ali insider and Ali himself.
The remaining 9,000 copies came with a photo-litho made by Jeff Koons. All 10,000 copies were individually signed by Muhammad Ali and Jeff Koons. We don’t know who else owns it but we do know that Indian cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar owns a copy — he was gifted one by a fan and Sachin is known to be fascinated by Ali’s life.
The new book, that literally brings the popular icon back to the people who made him the hero that he is, now comes at a much more affordable price, $150, and gives a memorable journey of Ali’s life inside its 651 pages which are alive with some 1,000 pictures, art, boxing posters and just news reports of that era. Plus, columns by close friends, colleagues and others who saw his transformation.
Go pick up a copy to relive the nerve wracking moments of his meteoric rise from his breakthrough with an Olympic gold medal to his legendary defeat of Sonny Liston (he promised his fans that he would “totally eclipse the Sonny”), his face-off with other boxing greats such as George Foreman, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks and his biggest rival of all, the gutsy, crusty Joe Frazier, with the “thrilla in Manila” (boxing fans are guaranteed to get goose-bumps from reliving the ferocious, gutsy, bloody fight, that Ali later said was his closest shave with death; he vanquished his very worthy rival and that put him way up there, much above the average men and women in sports).
Pick up the book for other reasons too, such as walking down memory lane and connecting with the happy-go-lucky-young man, full-blooded and fun-loving to the core. Lose yourself in a picture of Cassius Clay letting his hair down with a new pop group, The Beatles, on Miami’s beaches. Then there is an irreverent, evocative image on the cover of Esquire of a “bleeding” Ali, arrows in chest, that embodied the man’s fearless spirit as he refused to be inducted into the army on religious grounds.
Ali addicts can get rare insights into what the legend of Ali signified at various points in history and you could do well to read the interviews of Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Floyd Patterson and Ali’s confidantes Angelo Dundee and Ferdie Pacheco, among others. Author Alex Haley and writer Budd Schulberg (of On The Waterfront fame) and journalists also lift the veil over the most fascinating living sports legend in the world.
If you are a boxing fan and an Ali worshipper, this book is a must in your library.

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